Weather is unpredictable and with a quickly changing climate, time-sensitive emergency management plays a large role in ensuring the safety and security of both employees and a business’ infrastructure. Even if a business or organization is not in a region affected by severe weather, customers, partners, or vendors may still be impacted, so it is important to have a plan in place to anticipate those impacts.
Six categories form the core steps safety managers should take when preparing for severe weather.
Preparing for a weather event starts with information—gathering the facts surrounding an event and staying updated on changes as they happen. Consider where information is coming from: Are there internal resources and services available to provide in-house data or intelligence or would it make sense to partner with a third-party who can provide real-time weather alerts?
Weather intelligence services can provide a multi-layered, tailored approach to notifications and advice. If assets are located along the coastline of an active hurricane basin, minute-by-minute notifications about a storm’s track can dictate evacuation plans. If a facility is affected by seasonal wildfires, atmospheric data can prepare them for a break in production should the air quality deteriorate to an unsafe level.
No matter the weather, accurate and reliable information impacts response plan protocol and in turn, reduces risks and costs. As an emergency or safety manager, having this information on-hand helps in making those crucial decisions. The sudden change in direction of a storm could mean quickly shutting down operations and getting staff out of danger, or it could mean that a facility is no longer in the line of fire, with operations continuing safely. Timely information will help decide when to act, but also, when not to.
When setting up an emergency response plan, it’s important to make the right connections. This applies to any external service providers needed to keep operations running smoothly. If there is a loss of power due to high winds, safety managers should contact a provider who can give accurate time estimates so that generator output can be appropriately managed. Consider getting to know contractors, utility service providers, weather intelligence suppliers, and vendors to create a network of support.
Don’t wait for the first severe weather event to make these connections. Get to know service providers well ahead of expected weather events. Having those personal relationships in place helps them to better understand a business’ limitations.
Knowledge is power. No one can pre-empt every scenario that might occur in the event of severe weather—be it flooding, infrastructure loss, or loss of communications—but hypothesizing the major possibilities will add a layer of preparedness and help safety managers make the right decisions. Here are a few questions to ask:
No one wants to be caught off-guard. If a safety manager knows their business will be affected by severe weather at certain times of the year, they should plan for it. Build an emergency plan to protect staff, clients, and infrastructure. Below are some key points to keep top of mind:
The first thing people look for in the event of severe weather is shelter. Designating a safe place for employees or customers to retreat to should be one of the first actions in planning. Can the facility be shut down and employees sent home, or will they need to shelter-in-place? If the plan includes sending home non-essential employees, knowing the precise timing of storm arrival is crucial to ensure employees can make it home safely. If shutdown is not an option, consider the threats:
Depending on the type of risk, designate or build a safe place to keep people out of danger.
Choosing a safe space is step one, the second is working out a quick and safe path to it. This path needs to be direct, the shortest possible route, and physically safe. It should be clear of debris and any fire or flooding hazards, and accessible to everyone. Factor in the amount of time required to move people to safety via this route and ensure this time is built into the plan.
Weather intelligence services can send an alert when they see that a designated safe place may need to be used.
Major storms are known to impact power grids, roads, telephone lines and more. Finding that a facility has been cut off from receiving deliveries or utilities, will require the stock piling of supplies to keep the business going until services return to normal. This could include installing a generator to provide power for up to four days, should there be damage to the grid. It could also mean stocking up on functional supplies that are normally delivered daily but are stalled.
Having emergency supply providers on stand-by (those who can make deliveries immediately before or after an event) should a business need something urgently is a common best practice.
Should the weather be so bad that business must stop completely, with people retreating to a safe area, basic necessities must be covered, such as food, water, and medical supplies. This includes a disaster survival kit containing a flashlight, batteries, portable radio and whistle to signal for help.
Remember if a storm doesn’t directly impact a facility, it can still stress a business, affecting service providers or clients in a wider region. A business may even become the sole provider of service or product to a particular area. This would require a plan of how to meet increased demand—adjusting supplies and staffing requirements to support the affected community.
Before, during and after a weather event, having a two-way communication method with employees is crucial in ensuring their safety, preparing for any staffing shortages, and announcing operational changes. For the medical industry, patient care doesn’t stop in the event of a storm, and in fact may increase, so planning rotations and communicating with staff helps keep things functioning. The same can be true for other industries providing 24/7 services.
Reliable weather prediction data can be used to advise staff when they will be needed, anticipate fluctuating capacity and business needs, but also predict when employees can safely travel to and from work. Managers must keep in mind that employees have differing factors restricting them coming to work, depending on where they live and personal circumstances. When planning for hurricane season, for example, the longer lead-time with storms means that staff can prepare by securing their homes, gathering supplies, and ensuring their family’s safety before thinking about work.
When severe weather is brewing, telecom providers may be struggling with increased demand. Simplifying communication with employees to a text alert could provide a quick, reliable method to relay information and instructions. Should telecom service go out completely, staff can use satellite radios, or access a previously sent email with instructions.
In the event of a weather emergency, every individual must be trained to understand their responsibilities when carrying out protocol. Should an emergency notification come through, staff should be able to act confidently and quickly, knowing what to expect. Getting staff prepared for severe weather emergencies can be achieved through routine drills, which ensure employees know, and can execute, their responsibilities in the event of a real disaster.
Knowing how many people are in a facility and where they’re located at any given time is crucial. This includes employees and visitors, as everyone must be accounted for in the event of a retreat to safety or evacuation.
Businesses are also responsible for protecting their infrastructure and assets, while keeping an up-to-date inventory of property in a safe place. In the event of damage or loss to property, insurers will need to know the exact items owned by the business, their location and their value.
Furthermore, maintaining property and infrastructure is important. During a major storm, main concerns revolve around power and water, especially during flood risks. A facility’s integrity can be threatened, so keep everything in good condition and clear of hazards. High winds can push over foliage and trees, so check that the building is not at a high risk of being damaged by its natural surroundings.
In regular building upkeep, make sure roofs, doors and windows are structurally sound; roofs are often the most susceptible to damage, followed by walls and openings. Have these features cared for, and ensure any mounted equipment is well-anchored, in good condition and fire or flood protected. Carry out regular maintenance on all auxiliary functions, such as generators or emergency lighting so that these items are in proper working condition should they be needed unexpectedly. Lastly, expand this care to all structures for the business, including storage facilities and outdoor units.
Responding to weather requires flexibility and time-sensitive decision making. As weather grows and dissipates, an emergency response plan should adjust for each scenario. Many response plans factor in a timeline of actions, depending on how long until you can expect storm impacts (aka a proximity trigger). As soon as a proximity trigger is reached, the plan commences, and actions are taken at each daily or hourly milestone. While these actions are necessary, timing them can be equally important. Generic response plans that don’t adjust based on current and forecast storm conditions (such as the storm’s movement, or the probability of intensity at impact) will cost a business time and money. This can mean a business is unprepared for the arrival of a storm, putting lives at risk, or it may mean taking unnecessary actions after a storm slows or changes direction, increasing costs or lowering production for no reason.
This is where up-to-the-minute storm alerts based on the precise location of the facility can help safety managers implement their plans, and accurate, timely information plays its most important role.
Safety managers can learn from their business or similar ones by taking note mistakes and through experience. No two storms are identical, but they can feature similar challenges and help better prepare for the next one. Following each event, it’s a good rule of thumb to take stock of the response plan:
After an event, safety managers should assess:
Asking these questions gives safety managers the opportunity to improve emergency plans, ensures that people and facilities remain safe, and avoids large-scale losses.
After reviewing these steps in preparing for a severe weather event, a business’ current emergency plan may need adjustments or additions. The most important step to remember is that receiving the right information will help a business prepare sufficiently. Knowing what to expect is key when reacting to any foreseeable emergency.
Originally published in Professional Safety, March 2022.